Forbidden Fruit Crops Up Far From Eden

By Jeremy Caplan

Published July 25, 2003, issue of July 25, 2003.
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Far from the Garden of Eden — on the streets of New York — the forbidden fruit is cropping up in liquid form. And one Upper West Side Jew is set on spreading the word.

Stepping into Brite, a trendy new bar in Manhattan, Gidon Coll approaches owner John Libonati on a recent summer night. With a sheepish smile, Coll hands him a bottle of Original Sin Hard Cider and a marketing folder that reads, “Have you sinned today?” They shake hands, and Coll walks away onto the streets of Chelsea, leaving Libonati to ponder the bottle, the pitch and the salesman.

Another bar down, thousands to go.

Since selling his first bottle in 1999, Coll says he’s walked 3,000 miles pitching his cider to thousands of city bars and restaurants. He’s learned New York so well he can map its streets with the authority of a cab driver. “When I see a movie set in the city,” Coll says, “I can identify the block in three seconds.”

Coll used to follow up his successful sales calls himself, dropping off cases and kegs in partnership with a small distributor. In 2001, he passed on distribution duties to the successful Brooklyn Brewery. He now sells 1,000 cases a month to 300 bars and stores, including New York nightspots like Max Fish, CBGB and Motor City and the upscale grocer Fairway. Coll’s annual revenues top $200,000, and he’s received offers to sell his brew overseas, although he’s turned them down. (It’s “too complicated,” he says.)

Coll runs his one-man show out of a cramped Upper West Side apartment and a closet-sized Union Square office. On average, the soft-spoken salesman walks anywhere from five to 10 miles a day, inviting bartenders and owners throughout Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan to take a swig of Original Sin.

Every six weeks, however, Coll leaves his pavement pounding behind to oversee production at the Vermont factory where it is made. Once there, he checks acid levels in towering 4,500-gallon vats, alcohol content (6%) and the flavor of his pressed apples. Luckily, he no longer has to stay up nights to glue labels to bottles by hand.

Raised in a Conservative Jewish home on a dairy farm in New York state, Coll keeps a low profile because he wants to market his cider as a hip, edgy drink for downtown denizens. He doesn’t need them to know that the man behind the sexy bottle is a single, squeaky-clean Cornell grad with a biology degree and an appreciation for cattle.

The son of South African parents and Irish and Lithuanian grandparents, Coll was born in Israel but moved to New York as a toddler. He grew up milking and breeding cows in Ancram, N.Y., a Hudson Valley town of 1,500. As a child he picked apples after school at a nearby orchard but dreamed of becoming a baseball player. He never imagined that all that forbidden fruit would lead to Original Sin.

Coll, 35, took some food science courses as an undergraduate, but most of his business training came through his first two start-ups. After working briefly at a kibbutz in Israel after college (“I was the first American Jew there who could actually milk a cow,” he says with obvious pride), Coll launched a mail-order book business. When it failed, he started a haute hat-making company that counted Samuel Jackson and Bruce Willis as customers. After moderate success, Coll cashed in on his caps in 1997 and dreamed up his cider as an all-natural alternative to beer. The positive response since then has him pondering possible new products, like a pear cider or an organic beer.

With the help of Cornell food science professors, a Peruvian wine expert and some targeted Web research, Coll crafted for himself a crash course in cider production. He experimented with apples from China, England, Germany, the United States and South Africa. The result? A simple plan — sell it himself — and a simple recipe: Granny Smith Vermont apples and champagne yeast.

On this hot summer night, Brite is the first of 10 stops for Coll. Brite’s Libonati later told the Forward that he hasn’t decided whether he’ll stock Original Sin. “I like his soft sell,” Libonati says. “And he doesn’t stick around to gab. I appreciate that.”

“It might be a tragic mistake,” Coll says, “but I don’t pal around or chat people up. I just give them the cider and let it speak for itself.”

Jeremy Caplan, who writes for Time, lives in New York City.

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